Doctor’s Tip: Drinking safely during the holidays
Since we are in the midst of the holidays, this week’s column will be a break in the current series on why we should avoid certain foods if we want optimal health. This purpose of this article is not to advise readers to avoid drinking alcohol but to make them aware of the potential harm from drinking too much.
“Holiday heart” refers to the fact that atrial fibrillation (afib) is more common over the holidays due to increased alcohol intake. A normal heart has a regular rate and rhythm. Atrial fibrillation is when the heart beats totally at random, which can lead to the following problems:
• When the heart is fibrillating, it doesn’t pump blood as efficiently as when it beats normally.
• Clots are apt to form in a fibrillating heart, and a clot can travel from the heart up to the brain, causing a stroke. To prevent clots, people with atrial fibrillation are usually placed on “blood thinners” such as Coumadin.
There are many causes of afib, including heat valve defects, hardening of the arteries, an overactive thyroid and aging (9 percent of people over the age of 80 have it). Even small amounts of alcohol increase the risk of afib.
According to a Sept. 14, 2016, article in the Journal of the American Heart Association, for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed (the amount in a typical drink) there is a 5 percent higher risk of afib, so the higher the intake the higher the risk. Acute heavy alcohol intake, known as binge drinking, is defined as consuming about four to five drinks over a two-hour period, and is more apt to occur over the holidays.
A recent Harvard Heart Letter defines “moderate drinking” as one drink a day for women and two for men. It also notes that due to changes in metabolism of alcohol as we age, both men and women age 65 and older should limit themselves to one drink a day. Here’s the definition of 1 drink:
• 12 ounces of beer.
• 8-9 ounces of malt liquor.
• 5 ounces of table wine (about 1/2 cup).
• 3-4 ounces of fortified wine. Note that alcohol content of wine can vary from 7-16 percent.
• 2-3 ounces of liqueur.
• 1.5 ounces of brandy.
• 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
Mixed drinks often have more alcohol than people realize. For example, a typical margarita, containing both tequila and orange liqueur, is equal to 1.7 standard drinks. For more information on other mixed drinks, search “cocktail content calculators” at rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov.
For many of us, having a little more alcohol than usual is part of the holiday season. But be aware of the risks of overdoing it. If you drink within the above parameters, you will:
• Be able to drive safely.
• Be less apt to get “holiday heart.”
• Feel better the next morning.
• And have just as much fun at holiday parties.
And remember the old joke heard in medical circles: How does a doctor determine who has an alcohol problem? Anyone who drinks more than the doctor.
Happy, safe holidays.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at email@example.com.